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Atari 2600 Game Design Rejuvenation

Personal guidelines and player advocacy.

Opinion page by Duane Alan Hahn.

Table of Contents

Below are my personal thoughts and guidelines for making Atari 2600 games. I've been slowly working on them since 1982. Although this page was made with Atari 2600 games in mind, a lot of it can be applied to all games.

 

 

 

 

Making a Game isn't About Your Ego

Making a game is about having fun, overcoming challenges, being grateful for help from better programmers, and trying to make players happy. If people have a rough day at work or school, they can sit down, play your game and get away from it all for a little while. If we can help players relieve stress and just generally feel better after playing, we've done a good job.

 

Everything in your game should be as user-friendly and intuitive as possible. It's your job to put everything you can on a silver platter for the player. Never let ego or laziness interfere.

 

Any time you start thinking more about yourself and less about the player, it's time to go out to a tree, find a good switch, and beat your ego until it's in the fetal position over in the corner of your mind.

 

 

 

 

 

No Flashing

Please do not flash the background color or the playfield color when the player receives damage or when an enemy or object of some kind is destroyed. Yes, I know that some programmers back in the 1980s flashed the screen, but programmers did a lot of stupid stuff in the 1980s. It's a lazy effect that bothers the eyes of some players, so you might as well leave it out. It doesn't matter if you think it won't cause epileptic seizures; it's still irritating. It can also cause eye pain and headaches. For me, it usually only causes eye pain, but I have gotten headaches from it.

 

If you want to indicate that the player received damage and you think that a sound effect isn't enough, try having a sound effect while flashing the color of the player's sprite. For something like a meteor being destroyed, have a sound effect and an explosion animation instead of flashing the screen.

 

If you think that you absolutely must flash the screen, try using a multicolored playfield, then quickly send a strip of light color from top to bottom and that shouldn't hurt anybody's eyes.

 

On a similar subject, it can also be irritating when the playfield quickly changes color in a never-ending loop. For example, a version of Pac-Man where the walls of the maze quickly change color in a continual loop would make a lot of people run from the game and never return.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reset Switch and Fire Button = Start

I can't believe this section is needed, but a guy will come along every once in a while who thinks he's avant-garde or ever so clever and will use the Select switch or some other switch to start his game. These people who incorrectly believe that only they march to the beat of a different drummer need to understand that we can have fun expressing ourselves and being creative, but we still have to think about the player.

 

Every Atari 2600 game made since 1982 should start if the player presses the Reset switch or the fire button (whichever one the player chooses to use). Most players expect it, so do it. No excuses. Kill your ego and your delusions. Show that you respect and care about the player by making the controls as user-friendly and intuitive as possible.

 

 

 

 

End of Game + Fire Button = Reset Switch

Any game released after May of 1982 should start/restart using the fire button. It's more than a courtesy, it's an expected feature that was famously used in Yars' Revenge, but it was also used in games that were released earlier such as Maze Craze and Pac-Man. The joystick is essentially turned into an Atari 2600 remote control and the player can restart a game without getting up a million times. Not everyone sits on the floor, a foot away from the Atari and not everyone plays emulated games with the keyboard (some players use a controller).

 

You might be tempted to use the fire button to restart a game and ignore the Reset Switch. Not a good idea. It should be the player's choice. When the game ends, the player should be able to play again by pressing the fire button or the Reset Switch. It should never be one or the other. The Reset Switch is also supposed to work if the player presses it while playing a game, so make sure your games allow the player to do that.

 

No matter how the player chooses to restart the game, remember to have some type of short game over sequence that makes sure the player can't restart accidentally. The player will still be able to restart using the fire button, but only when he or she wants to.

 

If you want more than my opinion, the following is from Atari's Game Standards and Procedures:

 

 

 

 

 

Randomness and Replayability

Controlled Randomness should be used to place enemies, objects, bonus items, hidden rooms, platforms in a platform game (when possible), and so on to keep the game fresh. A game should be about on-the-spot decision making and pure fun, not memorization of patterns, enemy locations, or game event trigger locations that never change when the game is replayed.

 

Think of The Legend of Zelda with a more advanced version of the randomness in Adventure (game 3). In such a large game, use of a random seed would be necessary so the game would be the same until finished. After the player has 'beaten' the game, a new seed could be selected manually or randomly and the player would be off on a whole new adventure within the familiar framework.

 

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Slayer is a pretty good example of a replayable game. From the back cover: "The randomized dungeon generator can create over 4 billion different dungeons — that's a new monster hunt every time you play!"

 

 

 

 

 

Perfect Timing Tribulations

Don't give the player irritating perfect timing chores that are like playing a deadly game of laser jump rope. One tiny mistake and you're dead and usually have to go back and replay that level or a bunch of levels. Don't be like game designers who say "Dance for me monkey boy! Be perfect or die! Now do it all over again! Ha ha ha ha!" Perfect timing is usually an essential part of Die and Remember games. Yes, I know that many of the things I say go against everything you've learned over the years, but we need to stop the same old 'monkey see, monkey do' game design. We don't have to continue to make the same mistakes that other game designers have made. We can try to do better.

 

Check out the following from montalk.net:

 

Although I tend to lean towards video 'toys' where no struggle is involved for true creative play, there's nothing wrong with fun struggle. The problem is that too many game designers and players have been brainwashed into thinking that painful struggle is the only option. For example, if you're climbing a mountain with the usual ropes and gear, then slip a little, you don't have to go back to the bottom and start all over again. Forcing players to replay entire levels for making a tiny mistake is like sending them back to the bottom of a mountain; it's painful struggle. If we focus on fun struggle, the benefit might be that players will feel good after playing instead of feeling stressed out, irritated, and ready to bite someone's head off.

 

 

 

 

 

Intelligent Non-Player Characters

Every non-player character should seem to be 'alive' and at least have a spark of intelligence. If a non-player character simply jumps back and forth or moves up and down, it's nothing more than a mindless obstacle. There's nothing wrong with mindless obstacles, but anything that is supposed to be alive should act like it's alive. Non-player characters don't have to be geniuses, but they should be able to see you or smell you or track you by the sounds you make. And if possible, they should have some kind of emotional reaction (fear, anger, surprise or whatever fits the game). Some non-player characters might hold a grudge if you make them angry and will come after you long after other non-player characters have moved on.

 

Here's a semi-related excerpt from The Making Of: IK+ (edge-online.com):

 

 

 

 

 

Platform Game + Fire Button = Jump

Never make the player jump by pressing up on the joystick. It's unpleasant, uncomfortable, unnatural, and unintuitive. If the character must shoot a weapon or throw things, how about having the player hold down on the joystick to switch between shoot mode and jump mode or maybe the player could press the fire button for a certain amount of time (similar to Mouse Trap)? Or what about a double tap of the fire button to jump and a single tap to shoot (or the other way around)?

 

 

 

 

 

Resist Frustration and Competition

Try to eliminate frustration and competition whenever possible. Frustration was a highly successful villainous tactic for getting people hooked on games and squeezing as much money out of them as possible, but a fun game without frustration is healthier for gamers. Try to focus on what is truly fun, not some perverted version of it. Most of us have come to believe that frustration and competition are essential ingredients of fun. We've been bombarded with that idea for so long that it's hard for us to see any other way, but we have to break free from these fallacies. Speaking of competition, it seems like most people are addicted to it and one way to help them move away from competition and focus on play and untainted fun is to rip out the score.

 

 

About This Page

I'm still editing this page. Some things need to be changed or rearranged.

Most of the text on this page is from me, but I have been influenced by various game designers and players over the years, so it may not be completely original. I have also edited some of the text based on input from AtariAge members such as theloon.

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View this page and any external web sites at your own risk. I am not responsible for any possible spiritual, emotional, physical, financial or any other damage to you, your friends, family, ancestors, or descendants in the past, present, or future, living or dead, in this dimension or any other.

 

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